Although we often wish there was a magic pill that would enable us to eat whatever we liked without exercising, and still never gain weight, this simply isn’t the way our bodies work; a combination of healthful diet and exercise is the only way to attain and maintain good health.  This doesn’t mean we begin with unrealistic expectations that we can’t possibly live up to. Going from a sedentary lifestyle to a fit, active lifestyle takes time and effort. Transforming a diet heavy in processed, nutritionally deficient foods to a balanced diet also takes time and practice. Attempting to do it all at once usually results in defeat, more weight gain and lowered self-esteem -- slow and steady seems to win the race on improving diet and exercise.

The importance of healthful diet and exercise is undeniable. Along with the numerous physical health benefits of regular exercise (lower blood pressure, body fat loss, increased muscle tone and bone density, even as a treatment for arthritis), it also has observable mental health benefits. People who exercise regularly are less anxious and stressed, more focused at work and in life, and they have more self-esteem and confidence. They get more restful sleep. They’re just generally more satisfied with life. Similarly, eating a balanced diet can lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, stabilize blood sugar and mood, and help to maintain energy levels throughout the day.

Try these tips for incorporating healthy diet and exercise habits, one at a time. Before you know it, you’ll have built a diet and exercise routine that works perfectly for you and fits seamlessly into your daily life.

1. Eat breakfast, for heaven’s sake! You’ve probably heard it time and again, but that’s because it’s so true.

Eating first thing in the morning or at least within an hour or so of awakening, stokes your body’s fuel-burning fires for the day. Many people mistakenly believe that eliminating breakfast increases chances of weight loss, but the opposite is actually true. If you don’t eat breakfast, your body goes into energy-conservation mode, and repeatedly skipping breakfast results in a lower metabolic rate. If you’re not hungry when you wake up, start small. Have a cup of tea and a slice of toast with peanut butter. A piece of fresh fruit or a cup of yogurt are also good choices. If you can’t stomach a “full” breakfast, that’s ok – just try to eat something small.

2. Eat at regular intervals. For some people, this means three meals and a snack or two. For others, six balanced mini-meals works better. If you have a tendency to overeat at meals and then feel stuffed, chances are you’re not eating often enough. Try having a snack every two to three hours. A piece of fruit and some string cheese, a few graham crackers plus a handful of almonds, or half a turkey and cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato are all great mini-meal options.

3. Plan ahead. Take healthful snack and meal options to work with you. It’s already easy to be tempted by those enormous red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese icing in the break room, and even easier to give in if you’re hungry and there’s nothing else to eat on hand.  When you grocery shop on the weekend, buy a week’s worth of fruit, serving-size packages of fresh, washed veggies, string cheese, nuts and even healthy microwave meals. Keep them in the fridge at work so you know that no matter what indulgences your coworkers bring in to share, you always have a better option available.                                                                   (Over)
4. Make it easy. Eating a healthful diet doesn’t mean you have to become a gourmet chef. For example, buy three cans of different kinds of beans (garbanzo, French-style green beans and kidney beans), drain and toss together with low-calorie Italian dressing, or simply a little olive oil and lemon juice. This will keep for nearly a week in the fridge for a quick side dish or snack that’s high in protein and filling fiber. Small serving-size cans of water-packed tuna are nutritional powerhouses, and all you have to do is pop them open and enjoy. Try a serving of canned tuna with just a little salt, pepper and lemon juice; you’ll be surprised how delicious and satisfying this is, even though it sounds simple.

5. Choose fill-up foods. Whenever possible, choose foods high in cleansing fiber. They provide filling bulk with fewer calories, and they can also help lower risks for high cholesterol and colon cancer. It’s also a good idea to take a daily fiber supplement.  Starting a meal with a low-fat, broth-based soup is also an excellent way to make you feel full, which means you’ll be less likely to overeat those higher-calorie foods.

6. Start small, be realistic and don’t punish yourself with exercise. Throw the old adage of “no pain, no gain” out the window – for most people, this kind of thinking only leads to feelings of discouragement and hopelessness. This doesn’t mean that exercise shouldn’t be challenging and even strenuous at times, but it should never leave you cripplingly sore the next day. It’s important to be honest about your current fitness level. If you’re currently sedentary, 30 minutes of fast walking three times a week might be too much for you, depending on your heart and lung health, not to mention how much extra weight you might be carrying. Talk to your doctor about safe, realistic fitness goals, especially if you’re starting from scratch.

7. Remember that practice makes perfect. Establishing a fitness routine often involves a lot of psychological resistance. Many people find that they still resist exercising even when they report feeling great during and after their workouts! If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. If you’re tempted to skip a workout, remind yourself of how good it felt the last time, and how glad you were that you did it. Forming new diet and exercise habits requires practicing them over and over. That’s how you formed the habit of not exercising in the first place, so put this same principle to work for you in the opposite direction.

8. Choose something you love. Adopting a workable exercise program doesn’t have to mean joining a gym and getting a personal trainer to help you “feel the burn” and “push it to the limit.” If you hate to run, jog or walk, there’s no rule that says you have to do those things to get in shape. Were you a dancer or cheerleader in high school? Why not take a belly dancing, salsa or even kickboxing class? Why not go roller-skating for an hour a couple of times a week? Exercise habits stay most firmly in place when we have fun during our workouts, so try abandoning the notion that healthy diet and regular exercise have to involve hard, grueling work.

9. Make time for exercise. You’re worth the time, trouble and effort. It may seem like all your other obligations take precedence over your workouts, but in the big picture, your health is what enables you to do everything else that’s important to you. Treat your exercise program like any other important obligation, and schedule adequate time for your health every week.

How many of us, fed up with the way we feel and look, have put together a stringent diet and exercise plan that we couldn’t even stick with for a week, let alone a lifetime?  But making one or two small changes a day in the direction of better health may seem to have inconsequential effects at first. You may wonder why you even bother. But taking it one day at a time, one small change at a time, truly is the key to establishing lasting and healthful diet and exercise habits.